For a time I found Dragon Age II polarizing at best. There were aspects of the game that I loved, but there were other parts that in equal measure I pretty much hated. Looking back on some conversation logs, I can see myself telling fellow RPG Site staff that the game maybe "just wasn't for me" or maybe, worse, that it was just genuinely a middling sequel to an awesome game - but then something happened. Something changed.
I'm not quite sure if it was me or the game itself, but just over three hours into Dragon Age II something clicked and I really began to enjoy myself. The game is undoubtedly something of a 'grower' - while at first I was really down on it my opinion has quickly changed in spite of some large flaws and issues.
Why, you ask? Perhaps it was the manner in which I levelled - choosing to play a Warrior, I found the skills early on lacking, and playing on the Xbox 360 version of the game I was left hammering on the A button because I had little in the way of skills and somehow auto battle is inexplicably absent from the console versions. After a few hours, though, my Warrior became powerful; his range of skills broadened and combat suddenly became more interesting and fun.
Perhaps not, mind - Perhaps it was the fact that for a short while the game funnels you through fairly unremarkable locales with fairly unremarkable characters but suddenly opens up as soon as you hit main hub-city Kirkwall, throwing tons of sidequests in your way, giving me a lot of distractions outside the story.
It could also be down to the loot bug - you know it - where after a few hours of changing rubbish armour I was bitten by the bug that drove me to complete even minor missions to try to locate some good looking, high-performance gear for my Hawke to wear.
Whatever it was that caused it, my change of attitude towards Dragon Age II allowed me to enjoy it so much more than I had been early on, and I'm glad of that.
The game tells a more personal story than its predecessor, choosing to be largely based in and around one large city and being the story of one man (or woman) and their family and close friends. The wider events of the Dragon Age world - the blight, demons, and the plight of the poor and so on play heavily into events but are not things you actively participate in as much as with Origins.
Bioware have achieved a greater level of personality in the lead character by shifting towards a Mass Effect styled setup - Hawke can be a man or a woman, but has a set surname and a voice actor who delivers their lines for you rather than large lines of unspoken text. You can choose a first name for Hawke, and the dialogue wheel from Mass Effect returns here and will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played that or Alpha Protocol.
There's a slight addition to the menus - icons now give the confused a glimpse into what that dialogue option will do. Asking for or offering money will show money in the centre of the wheel, while any option leading to a fight will show crossed red swords. Agreeing to a quest will be represented by a big green tick, of course, and a red cross for saying no. That's a nice addition, as sometimes those dialogue summaries on the wheel can be a little vague.
All of this does the job just fine, and I can honestly say I didn't miss the more detailed dialogue options you got in the previous game - it's a worthwhile trade-off to have Hawke fully voiced.
Better still is the option to bring your companions into the conversation - trapped in a Mexican stand-off with high level enemies who would probably beat me in combat I deferred to the lying ability of slick-tongued dwarf Varric to get us out of a situation. He managed to talk his way around them in a manner my Hawke never could've.
Much of the game is framed around said dwarf recounting your adventures to the Chantry Seeker Cassandra, essentially leaving you playing the story in flashback. It's an interesting setup, and left me wondering just what was going on with Varric - and how he'd get to where he is as he narrates - as I played through the game.
Depending on the difficulty you play on combat can be approached very differently. On easier difficulties it's totally possible to leave the AI to control the other characters, concentrating on Hawke, but to me that isn't very interesting. No matter how much the trailers may want to pretend otherwise this is nothing like a third person action game, and so the end result is if you play that way you'll spend a lot of time hammering on the attack button watching the health of the enemy chip away in tiny, unsatisfying chunks.
Swinging your sword just isn't all that effective. Some special moves look amazing, but on the whole there's a disconnect between how awesomely hard Hawke's swings look and how much damage it inflicts on enemies, even at higher levels. That's just the nature of this game - it's based on dice rolls. Because of that, I recommend everyone plays this game properly - and that's on a harder difficulty.
With the difficulty cranked up you'll be forced to micro-manage your party a lot more and everything becomes more reminiscent of Dragon Age: Origins. You can pause the combat at any point, order your party to move individually, use skills, magic and items, heal, attack - anything - through the radial menu that pops up when you pause the game.
It's impossible to control the entire party all the time, so there's a tactics section for each character where you can set up orders of what they should do in certain situations such as if their health drops below 25% or if an enemy is buffed or staggered. There's a ton of options, and every fight could be approached in a lot of different ways depending on who your party is and how they're specced.
In terms of progression each character will have access to a number of skill trees which allow them to specialize within the three basic classes - Warrior, Mage and Rogue. Hawke can be any of these three classes, but you can only choose once at the game's outset.
Warriors, for instance, can use Sword and Shield, Two Handed Swords or Blunt, Heavy Weapons, and each has a different skill-tree and plays quite differently. You'll have to choose what type of powers to develop, and then past that there are also roles such as Defender to consider, which give skills based on what kind of game you want to play with that character.
The skill trees look great and work great, managing to give you more information on what you're investing in than Origins ever did and actually being something of a branching tree this time. I always found myself carefully considering what to invest in, and I never felt like there was a lack of options for how to develop.
On the surface Dragon Age II appears to be 'dumbed down', but a lot of the depth from Origins is still there, hidden beneath the surface and only required on harder difficulties. Some balk at the lack of friendly fire, but again the difficulty that elements like that provided in Origins can be found on Hard and Nightmare, make no mistake.
Much of what I've written so far has been positive, but it's important to know that it isn't all roses in Dragon Age II. I dislike the complete inability to change the armour of your teammates, for instance. While I understand why they'd make this the case, I miss being able to customize the cast completely. Bioware do make up for this somewhat by allowing you to equip rings, necklaces and belts onto your party members and also by allowing you to purchase upgrades that improves their armour at stores.
Certain elements of the game appear to have fallen by the wayside. Crafting is there but could be passed over almost entirely, and just how powerful and abundant potions are even on higher difficulties means that investing skill points in healing magic almost feels like a waste.
My biggest complaint, though, has to be about the recurring dungeons in sidequests. I've seen the same dungeons recycled time and time again on both the Xbox 360 and PC versions of the game. You'll see the same caverns and mines several times over, and while you'll arrive through different doors with your objective in different directions it's still clear that you have been here before.
Bioware try to cover this up a little by mixing things up and even closing off certain paths and areas in different 'versions' of each dungeon - but even that feels rushed. Doors are 'filled in' but are still clearly doors as you can see the doorframe, and the mini map still shows paths which you can't actually go down in this version of that cave.
It reminds me of Mass Effect, which reused the same five or six designs of planet-side base over and over again in almost all of its 'uncharted worlds' side missions. It's not as bad here - there's definitely more variety to the dungeons here than in Mass Effect - but it's still hugely disappointing to see this issue crop up again, especially after Bioware appeared to learn their lesson in Mass Effect 2.
With that said, there are an absolute ton of sidequests and I was very pleasantly surprised by just how frequently they hit you. There's a lot of content in this game, and that "one more quest..." bug bites hard and you can go for hours without even touching a main storyline mission, flowing from side quest to side quest. Repetitive locales aside, they're all fairly interesting, too - there's a decent amount of variety peppered in there involving dialogue trees and morality choices as well as the traditional "hey, go here and kill a bunch of stuff" quests.
While most of Dragon Age II did turn me around, I'm still not entirely sure what to make of the art direction. It definitely looks better in motion than it does in screens, but it's hugely uneven - in places the game looks amazing, in others it looks utterly unremarkable. Overall I found it pleasing, though, and I actually find the more 'cartoony' look to actually work quite well for this blood-soaked universe.
The voice acting in the game is superb, as we've come to expect from Bioware. It's well directed, and the writing is high-quality but the overarching story of the game is a little too standard for my liking. Part of that does come from Dragon Age itself, though - it's a very typical High Fantasy setting.
All the stuff you'd expect from Dragon Age is here - romance plots, side quests about the pasts of your party members and plenty of morality choices. Each party member can either rival you or befriend you, and each will unlock different bonuses. Varric, for example, becomes more accurate with his crossbow if you're rivals - he wants to prove himself - but if you're friends he affords a weaker bonus but to the entire party. Touches like this make your decisions out of combat matter in combat as well.
Many of the aspects of Dragon Age II are going to be polarizing to many fans for many years to come. Some will claim scaling back the difficulty on normal ruined the game, while others will say it opened it up to a wider audience and the difficulty is still there if you go on Hard - and, again, there's truth to both. I wouldn't want to play on normal.
Some will claim setting it mostly in one city rather than being a kingdom-wide adventure was a step back from Origins, but others will argue that the smaller, tighter setting actually helps the story to be more intimate and personal. Truth is, both statements are right, all at once - but some don't want a more intimate story out of Dragon Age and whats more despite how intimate the story is many characters and events fall flat.
For me the highs are higher than those in Dragon Age: Origins, but the lows are far, far lower. It never quite manages to reach the high bar that it sets for itself and that its predecessor set, and as a game that makes compromises to appeal to a bigger audience it sits uncomfortably between Dragon Age: Origins which sold a ton despite being as hardcore as they come and Mass Effect 2 which makes similar compromises but makes them better.
In spite of all that and after the particularly bad taste it left me with for the first couple of hours I'm happy to say after some 45 hours on PC and around 10 hours on Xbox 360 I really enjoyed Dragon Age II. If you use the systems the game offers to you fully and crank the difficulty up you've got some of the most addictive, tactically taxing RPG combat around.
Part of the problem is that the game lets you be lazy if you want - on normal you can absolutely cheese the system and ignore much of the depth - but I can't emphasize enough that if you want it there is still a massive amount of depth in Dragon Age II's streamlined gameplay, and it's incredibly fun when you use that depth and those options to the fullest.
Dragon Age II is without a doubt a really good game with a few small but glaring flaws - but the discussion about Dragon Age II doesn't need to be "is it good?" - It is - but needs to be "is this what fans wanted from a sequel to Dragon Age: Origins?" It's going to take a while for the answer to that question to become clear.
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